The Second Sex | Simone de Beauvoir

Summary of: The Second Sex
By: Simone de Beauvoir


Dive into ‘The Second Sex’ by Simone de Beauvoir, a thought-provoking exploration of the historical and social factors that have contributed to the subjugation of women. Delve into topics such as biological differences, Freud’s psychoanalytical theories, the rise of patriarchy, and the influence of religion on gender roles. This book summary highlights the fundamental arguments against the implied inferiority of women, shedding light on the cultural beliefs and myths that have kept women in a perceived state of passivity and dependence on men.

Debunking the Myth of Male Dominance

Despite biological and psychoanalytical arguments for the subjugation of females to males, these are unconvincing and unjustified. Cultural values that prioritize physical strength and male genitalia as the norm perpetuate a sexist society.

The notion that males should have a superior status to females in society due to biological and psychoanalytical differences is an all too common idea. However, scrutinizing these arguments reveals significant flaws. While it is true that male attributes such as greater physical strength can be an advantage in certain contexts, valuing these traits above all else is arbitrary. In fact, cultures that prohibit violence show that physical strength is not always the ultimate determinant of power.

Psychoanalytical theories have also been put forward to explain gender inequality, such as Freud’s concept of penis envy. However, these theories are based on a male model and exalt male genitalia as the norm. This creates a false sense of superiority for males, rather than explaining why this should be the case.

Ultimately, the subjugation of females to males is not justified by science or reason. It is a result of cultural values perpetuated through generations that prioritize physical strength and male genitalia as the norm. By debunking these myths and exploring the flawed reasoning behind them, we can work to promote equality and eradicate sexism in society.

Rise and Fall of Matriarchal Societies

Many prehistoric societies were matriarchal, where women were granted sacred status due to their role in bearing children. However, the shift to patriarchy led to the marginalization of women, relegating them to passive deities of immanence while men ascended into transcendence. The development of slavery pushed women out of the workforce, deepening the divide between men and women. While patriarchy couldn’t eliminate the female goddesses altogether, it relegated them to passive roles. The idea of men as the prime mover and women as passive receptors was epitomized by the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Male-Created Society’s Impact on Inheritance and Property

In patriarchal societies, private property became the norm, leading to the exclusion of women from inheritance and ownership. The development of marriage only served to dehumanize women further. Control over family inheritance passed from father to husband, with women being viewed as property rather than individuals. This was exemplified by the ancient Greek institution of epiklerate and the practice of communal property shared by several men in Roman times. These historic practices continue to impact inheritance and property ownership today.

Women’s Struggle for Equality

Women have made significant progress in culture, politics, and education since the fifteenth century. However, up until the nineteenth century, most women continued to be dominated by marriage and societal roles. Women had no formal education and were not allowed to go to the universities. They gained access to male-dominated fields through literary salons. Women found their way into politics, such as Elizabeth I and Christina, Queen of Sweden. Although women were subjugated to men and earned less than men, those who bore children and tended to the home were also considered inferior. Women continue to struggle for equality.

The Impact of Religion on Women

Religion has played a significant role in the way we view women throughout history. Many religions have placed women beneath men since their origins, with examples from Judaism and Christianity’s origin story of Adam and Eve. In this story, Adam is created to freely enjoy the Garden of Eden, but Eve convinces him to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, leading to their expulsion, and making Eve responsible for the fall of mankind. This act reduces women to flesh and sin, with the view of female flesh being taboo in the Roman Empire, draining the strength of soldiers and devouring them. However, only prepubescent girls and older women are not seen this way. Female flesh is also associated with original sin, making every newborn guilty from birth. These views of women have led to the subjugation of women in society, and they continue to influence our views of women today.

Myths about Women

Many myths about women perpetuate their otherness and restrict their true representations. The use of oversimplified archetypes and benevolent myths serves to increase their otherness. Myths about menstruation perpetuate many absurd notions that women are out of control during their menstrual periods and can be dangerous to others. Similarly, female muses of Greek mythology portray the idea that women are beings that inspire rather than create works of genius. This idea promotes the notion that women are passive creatures that merely serve to inspire men’s transcendent will. These oversimplified notions make it easy for men to disregard women’s true identities and complexity. Rather than trying to understand women, men may think that women are inherently incomprehensible creatures. It is essential to disregard these myths and focus on creating a more accurate and equitable representation of women that portrays their true identities and complexities.

The Process of Becoming a Woman

The book explores how society shapes the identity of women from birth. When babies are born, they have no conception of gender. However, societal divisions create stark distinctions between boys and girls. Boys are encouraged to be independent and strong, while girls are treated as passive and dependent well into childhood. Girls are given dolls to play with, reinforcing the message that their role is to emulate their mothers and prepare for motherhood. This process not only shapes their self-perception but also creates a sense of shame around their bodies. The book suggests that understanding the impact of societal expectations on individual identity is crucial for women to break free from their passive role and become empowered individuals.

The Burden of Being a Girl

As girls grow older, they become increasingly aware of the limitations placed upon them by their gender. They desire the agency and possibility associated with the father’s role, which stands in stark contrast to the confinement of the home. This desire is evidenced by a statistic: over 75% of girls want to be boys. The physical changes that occur in a girl’s body, particularly the development of breasts and menstruation, serve as stark reminders of her otherness and the burden of being a potential child bearer. The experience of shame and taboo surrounding female genitalia further enforces the limitations and challenges faced by girls.

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